Boris Johnson doesn’t want a No-Deal Brexit, He wants to win an election | Daily News


Boris Johnson doesn’t want a No-Deal Brexit, He wants to win an election

The British prime minister’s tough talk is designed to provoke Remainers into blocking Brexit—and give him a villain to blame during an election campaign.

When he was campaigning to become the leader of the Conservative Party and, by extension, Britain’s new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson claimed that the chances of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a deal were “a million-to-one against.” Yet, since he entered Downing Street, all signs appear to indicate that Johnson’s government is actively trying to increase the odds of a no-deal Brexit.

On his first day in office last month, Johnson filled his Cabinet with hard-line Brexiteers. The Home Office and the Foreign Office, two of what are regarded as the great offices of state, are led by Priti Patel and Dominic Raab, respectively, both of whom are Brexit absolutists. Dominic Cummings, the director of the Vote Leave campaign, has been brought in as a senior advisor and assistant to the prime minister. Johnson has, thus far, refused to even meet EU leaders for discussions until they agree to completely scrap the contentious Irish backstop from Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement. Given the EU’s firm position that such an insurance policy is needed to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, if he maintains this position, a no-deal Brexit becomes the only possible outcome.

Although all signs suggest Johnson is leading the U.K. off the no-deal cliff, the likelihood is that he doesn’t really want to crash out of the EU. His commitment to leaving the EU on Oct. 31 with or without a deal, “come what may,” might appear to be an intractable red line, but in reality it should be seen as a deliberate challenge to his opponents in Parliament to stop him from leaving without a deal.

If Johnson was truly set on pushing through no-deal, he would have shown greater subtlety and gone about his plans more covertly so as to avoid alarming his opponents.

Instead, he has set out to cause maximum panic, which has had the effect of spurring a cross-party coalition against no-deal into action: Within days of Johnson’s entry into Downing Street, it was reported that the recently resigned chancellor, Philip Hammond, held meetings with Labour’s shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, and other Tory rebels where they began mapping out a strategy to block no-deal in the autumn. This bipartisan group is so concerned by the signals coming out of No. 10 that it intends to meet throughout the summer to plan its strategy in detail to maximize its chances of succeeding.

Johnson is well aware that the fallout from a no-deal Brexit would threaten his government as well as the long-term reputation of the Conservative Party. But he is unable to soften his rhetoric because it would provoke a furious backlash from absolutist Brexiteers within his own party and among the wider electorate. To keep his Cabinet on his side and to dissuade Conservative voters (some 61 percent of whom voted to leave the EU in 2016) from defecting to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, Johnson needs to be seen as a committed no-dealer.

This balancing act depends upon provoking hostile members of Parliament into blocking no-deal and forcing him to seek yet another extension to the Article 50 deadline so he doesn’t have to suffer the consequences of climbing down on his own accord.

Johnson would then be able to spin the Brexit delay as an act of sabotage by a Remainer-dominated Parliament and use it as justification for a snap general election. Indeed, it has been reported that Johnson and Cummings have already been laying the groundwork for a “people versus politicians” general election, long before Parliament has even made a move.

Commentators have long speculated that Johnson would call fresh elections within months of entering Downing Street so he can boost his working majority, which as of now depends on the hard-line Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and is currently down to a single MP. By vocally committing to no-deal, Johnson is trying to consolidate the Leave vote ahead of a future election by signaling to potential Brexit Party voters that the Tories are the party best placed to secure a no-deal Brexit in a political landscape littered with Remainers.

This strategy appears to be working: Since Johnson entered Downing Street, a “Boris bounce” has seen support for the Brexit Party drop five points, down to 14 percent, while the Conservatives have risen six points up to 31 percent. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, are neck and neck at 22 and 21 percent respectively, which points to a split in the Remain vote. This makes an early election ever more tempting for Johnson, because according to Robert Ford, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester, “under first past the post, a consolidated Leave vote will overcome a fragmented Remain vote often enough to deliver the Conservatives victory in many seats and thus a majority overall.”

In an electoral system that only rewards the party that comes first in any given seat, Johnson will stand a good chance of winning a parliamentary majority on a low vote share, just as the Labour Party’s Tony Blair did in 2005 when he won a 66-seat majority despite taking only 35.2 percent of the vote—a mere 2.8 percent more than the Conservatives. Even with a slender majority of some 30 seats, Johnson would have far more leeway to push his own revised Brexit deal through Parliament. The most straightforward way of doing this would be to alter the Irish backstop provision so that it only applies to Northern Ireland rather than the entire U.K., as the EU originally proposed in a draft withdrawal agreement in February 2018.

This arrangement would suit both the EU and English Brexiteers, as it would maintain an open border on the island of Ireland while allowing Great Britain to strike its own trade deals, because it would be outside of the European customs union. However, Johnson is unable to pursue this route, because it would alienate the 10 DUP MPs who currently prop up his government.

- Foreign Policy


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